Democrats: CNN, MSNBC, or other?

Now that the battle for the Democratic National Committee‘s been won by Howard Dean, the discussion (or fight) over the path the Democratic Party will take has moved beyond the walls of wonkdom and bloggerland into the open. The Senate cloture vote on the credit card industry’s bankruptcy restriction bill emphasized the split in the party, with Democratic Leadership Council stalwarts like Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, Tom Carper, et. al. (Lieberman, to his credit, voted against the bill itself) all voting with the unanimous block of Republicans. To paraphrase the Iron Chef: “Which flavor of Democrat will reign supreme?”

In the DLC’s corner are folks like Al From and Bruce Reed, making the point that the only Democratic President elected in the past quarter-century was former DLC Chairman Bill Clinton. On the other side, people like David Sirota of the Center for American Progress and Eli Pariser, Executive Director of have countered that Clinton is virtually the only success the DLC’s “triangulation” strategy has had, that under the DLC’s influence Democrats lost control of both the House and Senate, and that Clinton’s last electoral success (1996) is itself nearly a decade in the past.

Partisans in the DLC camp argue that Democrats need to continue their tack to the center, jettisoning members of groups like MoveOn and people like Michael Moore, in a gamble that they’d gain more people from the center than they’d lose. (The miscalculation inherent in this strategy has been displayed in the timidity shown by Democrats on the Terri Schiavo case. Though public opinion was later shown to be solidly against Congress involving itself, few Democrats spoke out against it, and nearly half of the 100 House Democrats who voted, voted for the bill.) DLC detractors say the party is at risk of alienating its core supporters by abandoning its principles, and that rather than giving up long-held beliefs and explaining how they agree on most issues with Republicans, Democratic leaders should spend more time convincing voters that their mode of government is better.

Elections for national positions only come around every couple of years, though. Experimenting with one policy or the other is incredibly risky. Is there some way of knowing who’s right before the mid-term elections in 2006?

There is one analogous model that might be illuminating. It has direct parallels with the political spectrum. It has virtually instant feedback. And it shows the pitfalls of continuing along the DLC path.

FOX News Channel has been steam-rollering its way toward cable news supremacy for years now. It’s the news source of choice for the White House, military bases, and die-hard Republicans. It has an unambiguous and synchronized message.

Cable News Network‘s been losing viewership to FOX, just as the Democrats have been losing voters. They don’t have the luxury of waiting two years between rating periods — they get their clobbering in the overnights — to figure out what to do. It’s a constant correction/feedback loop. But they’re still losing market share, even as they move toward the FOX model.

CNN’s strategy to deal with FOX has been to “triangulate”, playing essentially the same game the DLC advocates for the Democratic party. Over the years, they’ve moved people like Wolf Blitzer and Judy Woodruff to the fore, where they regularly offer conservatively-slanted commentary. The recent changes to CNN Headline News, adding Nancy Grace (a counter to FOX’s Greta Van Susteren), an hour of entertainment “news”, and an hour-long news report continue the FOXification.

None of these efforts have served to increase viewership. Die-hard conservatives won’t watch CNN because they’ve already got FOX to tell them what they believe. Many Democrats find CNN’s Blitzer, Woodruff, and reputed Rush Limbaugh squeeze Daryn Kagan so biased that they might as well watch FOX. Certainly, the coverage of the Schiavo case hasn’t varied much between the two networks.

CNN viewership jumped during the coverage of the Asian tsunami just after Christmas. People turned to “the most trusted name in cable news” for actual, fact-based reporting on a tragedy. But for day-to-day political reporting, their attempt to sidle up to FOX has been a failure so far.

There’s a lesson in here for Democrats. The book is still out on whether the latest changes at CNN (i.e. the CNN Primetime lineup) will reverse the trend, but any effect should be evident before the end of the spring. My money says that they fail to stop or even hasten the slide. If I’m right (and assuming CNN doesn’t change up its format to a purely fact-based style before then), leaders of the Democratic Party sticking to the DLC model for success should think about their own strategy before they end up becoming the next CNN.

Or worse, MSNBC (with apologies to Keith Olbermann).